Reading Ambedkar Right to Understand What Is Wrong With the BJP’s Dalit Politics

The RSS has tried to assimilate the Dalit community as part of its Hindu consolidation project, but as the recent aggressive gau raksha activism shows, its plans may be coming undone.

Dalit women carry a portrait of Ambedkar as they block traffic during a protest in Ahmedabad on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Dalit women carry a portrait of Ambedkar as they block traffic during a protest in Ahmedabad on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

The BJP leadership must be worried that the Sangh parivar’s focused efforts over the past decade to reach out to the Dalit community, both socially and politically, may be coming unstuck. In the immediate context, this would possibly manifest in Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati recapturing part of the Dalit vote base in UP, which she had lost to the BJP during the 2014 general elections. The BJP itself is in no doubt that the recent incidents of violence against the Dalit community in Gujarat and abuses hurled at Mayawati by Dayashankar Singh, a senior BJP leader, will have a political fallout in the crucial UP assembly polls due early next year.

Going beyond the immediate calculations of electoral politics, the BJP must also be worried about the long term impact of the rising assertiveness among the Dalits, especially the youth, across various states. Political observers will keenly watch which way the assertive Dalit youth radicalise.

For a few decades now, the RSS has been working on the Dalit community, at both social and political levels, as part of its Hindu consolidation project. At the social level, the RSS pulled off a coup of sorts in 1996 when Namdeo Dhasal, the founder of Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra and an acclaimed poet, shared the platform with then RSS chief K. Sudarshan in a bid to forge “national and social” unity. This came as a shock to many liberals as Dalit Panthers was started in 1972 as a revolutionary organisation to wage a prolonged battle against the unjust Brahmanical order.

However, at the same platform, Dhasal declared that the work RSS outfits like Samajik Samrasta Manch (social assimilation platform) were doing in Maharashtra had to be strengthened further. He further said, “Yes, I do feel the fight to eradicate caste has to be fought by Dalits and caste Hindus together carrying forward the tradition of Adi Sankara”. The RSS chief in turn said he fully agreed with Dhasal and claimed that lakhs of RSS workers were reaching out to the Dalits. This event was seen as a sort of watershed moment in the interface between the RSS and Dalit leadership in Maharashtra.

The bulk of the Dalit leadership, however, both at the political and intellectual level, did not share Dhasal’s optimism. In subsequent years Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar and intellectual, put things in perspective. He said, “Initially, the Hindutva forces grudged [B.R.] Ambedkar’s virulent criticism of everything Hindu and sulked over his forsaking Hindu religion and embracing Buddhism. But when they realized that Ambedkar symbolized the aspirations of the vast majority of the Dalits in the country… they adopted a strategy of co-opting Ambedkar. This strategy led to the launch of Samajik Samrasta Manch that provided space for willing sections of Dalits to be brainwashed by the Sangh Parivar”.

While the RSS was trying to socially assuage the aspirations of Dalit leaders, the BJP was simultaneously building a political narrative that Ambedkar did not trust Muslims. This was meant to help in the Hindu consolidation project, which sought to portray the Muslim as the common enemy. During the 2014 general elections, in UP, the BJP forcefully made out the case that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim.

In the social media, the BJP cleverly and selectively used a bunch of essays by Ambedkar titled Paksitan or The Partition of India to suggest his animosity towards Muslims. In an article titled “What Hindutva seeks“, Sangh parivar ideologue Ram Madhav quotes from the same Ambedkar essays to say, “Islam is a system of social self-government and is incompatible with local self-government, because the allegiance of a Muslim does not rest on his domicile in the country which is his but on the faith to which he belongs. To the Muslim, wherever there is the rule of Islam, there is his own country. In other words, Islam can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his motherland and regard a Hindu as his kith and kin”.

However, Madhav is quick to add that Ambedkar should not be read out of context and be seen as anti-Muslim because all he had sought was national unity during the freedom struggle. However, the the bulk of the Hindutva adherents and the BJP’s foot soldiers (bhakts) openly suggest that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim based on these selective quotes from Pakistan or The Partition of India.

What is overlooked is that in the same set of essays Ambedkar made scathing remarks against the proponents of the Hindutva ideology. He had said,”There are many lower orders in the Hindu society whose economic, political and social needs are the same as those of the majority of the Muslims and they could be far more ready to make a common cause with the Muslim than they would do with high caste Hindus who have denied and deprived them of ordinary human rights for centuries”. Ambedkar further argued, “If Hindu raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt be the greatest calamity for this country. It is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. It is incompatible with democracy. It must be stopped at any cost”.

Ambedkar even warned the Muslim leadership that if they created a minority-identity-based political unit, such as the Muslim League, it would further consolidate the politics of a majority Hindu identity. He has proved prophetic in many ways.

In today’s context, especially given the BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha, Dalit leaders like Mayawati are heeding some of Ambedkar’s warnings and trying to forge an alliance with the minorities in UP. Mayawati, by declaring that her party was offering the only real challenge to the BJP in UP, has clearly signalled she will take the Muslims along and address their growing insecurities in a rapidly polarising polity. Mayawati even had a Muslim member in her party register a formal complaint against Singh for his derogatory comments. The Dalit-Muslim politics is poised very interestingly in UP with the two having a 40% vote share. It is still not clear who would provide agency to such politics at the national level. Things are in a flux.

The BJP has messed up its relations with the Dalits in several states, partly on account of the gau raksha vigilantism, which has either turned violent or is affecting the economics around the industrial inputs coming from dead cattle. The ABVP’s aggressive attacks on sundry Dalit students associations in universities have only added to the BJP’s woes. Even as the RSS makes efforts to assimilate the Dalits at a social level, the political cadres of the BJP and ABVP have been very hostile to Dalits. There is a disconnect between the two. The aggressive gau raksha activism by the lumpen cadres is difficult to roll back now. Clearly, the BJP has bitten more than it can chew.